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Department of Linguistics

Frequently Asked Questions

Australian Voices frequently asked questions (FAQ).

The Australian English accent began in the early days of the new white colony that began in Sydney in 1788. It would have been first spoken by the children who were born into the new colony and exposed to a whole range of different dialects mainly from the south east of England. This new dialect was created by the colonial children out of the raw ingredients of the accents they heard around them.

Australian English is spoken by people who are born in Australia and /or grow up with an Australian English speaking peer group. These people come from a range of different ancestries. However, there are of course many Australians who do not use an Australian English accent, either because they have lived overseas for many years or because they migrated to Australia at an age when their accent has already become relatively stabilised. It is true that adults can, and indeed do, change their accents, however early exposure to a dialect is the usual mechanism for acquiring a native like accent.

There are three major subgroups of the Australian accent: Standard Australian English, Aboriginal Australian English, and Ethnocultural Australian English. Standard Australian English is spoken by the majority. Aboriginal Australian English is spoken by the majority of Indigenous Australians. Ethnocultural varieties may be spoken by people as an expression of ethnic, cultural or non-mainstream identity. Speakers often switch between the different subtypes. Within each of these subtypes there is a continuum of variation.

Australian English is a fundamental symbol of the Australian identity and the accent is probably the most recognisable element of this regional dialect of the English language. It immediately tells the listener that the speaker is Australian even if they use other linguistic features that are not typically considered Australian. An accent is a symbol or an emblem of who you are. It expresses your identity.

The Englishes spoken in America, Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and many other nations, are all dialects that have evolved from the English of the 16th century and all are legitimate versions of English in their own right. Each equally suits the needs of its users.

An accent is a product of social history – not climate, not the amount of pollen in the air, and certainly not the number of flies.

There is a difference between accent and carefulness. All language groups have a range of styles that can be used which are dependent on the formality of the situation. The casual and relaxed nature of the Australian culture however, does create an accent type that tolerates many informal conversational phonetic processes. Many Australians believe that that speaking with an overly formal accent type is affected and artificial and is therefore often frowned upon.

Language is a dynamic system that is constantly changing and so the speech of people in the past sounds different from those in the present because the language has changed. People from the past used older forms of the language. It is also the case that broadcasters in Australia in the mid 20th century were required to use an accent that was quite similar to BBC English. This is not the case today.

Changes that enter a language usually start in the speech of young people. This means that young people use more innovative forms than older people. One way that researchers determine how the language is changing is by looking at the speech patterns of people from different age groups.

There have been a number of interesting changes particularly to the vowel sounds. For instance, the vowel in a word like “bat” is now more like the vowel in “but”, but 50 years ago this same vowel was more like the vowel in the word “bet”.

The “oh” sound in a word like “hope” has changed as well. It used to be a combination of the vowels in “putt” and “put”. Try saying the vowel in “putt” and then move quickly to the vowel in “put” and you’ll have the old way of saying “oh”. One of the newer ways to say this vowel is a sequence of the “pot” vowel then the “boot” vowel.

There have also been changes to some of the consonant sounds. The “l” sound at the end of words is now sometimes pronounced as a vowel sound like the vowel in “put” or “cook”. For instance, “milk” may be pronounced as “miook”.

The “t” in “water” is now often pronounced more like a “d”. This is called “flapping” and happens when the “t” occurs between two vowel sounds if the first vowel is a stressed vowel.

There is greater use of the “High Rising Tune” which is a tendency for speakers to use rising intonation even for some statements.

The “oo” sound in the words “pool” and “school”, where the “oo” comes before an “l” sound, used to be like the vowel in “food” but for young people today it is usually more like the vowel in “pull”.

There used to be more “cultivated” or “posh” sounding speakers than there are today and also more “broad” or “ocker” sounding speakers.

Accents change through social influences (which are external to the linguistic system) and through phonetic processes (which are internal to the linguistic system). It is a combination of these two forces that create change. Linguistic change follows cultural change so any social or political events can potentially affect our identity and hence our language. The Australian shift away from Britain during the second half of the 20th century has probably had the effect of making Australians feel more globally independent and more mature as a nation. We have now adopted Australian English as our own internal standard dialect whereas 50 years ago we were still looking to Britain for the external standard.

Our work on the Australian Ancestors' project involves collecting archival recordings from elderly Australians to examine their accents. We know that accents are constantly changing and that once a person reaches adulthood their accent changes far less than changes occurring in the community. This is because it is typically younger people who initiate accent change. So we can identify a speaker as older, not just by the quality/tone of their voice but by their accent. This is because they use older forms of the language.

Work on historical accents helps us to trace the origins and evolution of Australian English. It gives us a way of looking back to the past. Of course we cannot tell exactly what the accent was like in the very early days of white settlement in Australia because we have no recordings from that period but we do have sound files recorded in the 20th century of speakers who were born in the later part of the 19th century. These sound recordings will give us clues about how the modern day accent developed. Through this research we will be able to develop and test theories of sound change and possibly make some predictions about the future direction of change.

The Australian English accent is quite similar throughout the country. There are four main reasons for this. Firstly, the Australian accent is quite young. It has only been spoken for over 200 years and this is a short time for language development. Secondly, the accent developed very rapidly in the early period of the colony and quickly became well established as the dialect of the white native born. Thirdly, there was a large amount of internal migration in the early history of colonial settlement and so the accent was transported around the country when settlements were still being established. Finally, Australians have a stronger sense of national identity than they do of local or state-based identity so it is not necessary for accent differentiation between states to exist as a way of separating groups of speakers.

Regionally, Australian English is a very uniform dialect. There are not the regional differences that are present in Britain or the US for instance. There is however regionalism in accent that gives listeners clues to the origin of a speaker. This is not the same as regionalism in words where speakers from different parts of the country use different words for the same meaning. In terms of accent there are a few regional markers. Young people from Victoria, for instance, may be more likely to say “Malbourne” for Melbourne, and their words “salary” and “celery” may sound the same or similar. Western Australians may be more likely to ask for a “beerar” at the pub or comb their “hairar”. South Australians may use a vowel-like sound for “l” at the end of words. For instance, “milk” may be pronounced as “miook”.

The Australian and New Zealand accents used to be very similar and this is largely because their early white settlements contained a similar mix of accents at a similar time in history although New Zealand was settled later than Australia. However, accents continually change to serve the needs of the users and as Australian and New Zealand identities are quite different it was inevitable that the accents would grow apart from each other. There are still many similarities between the two but there are a growing number of differences. This divergence is particularly occurring in the vowels that we call the short front series. These are the vowels in words like KIT, DRESS and TRAP.

Speakers of non English speaking backgrounds can potentially affect accent by creating a new accent group which may mark a particular ethnic affiliation. If this group is sufficiently large, mainstream groups may initiate change in language in an attempt to diverge from the new group. There is some suggestion that this situation occurred in Australia in the post WWII era. Many migrants from southern Europe used a foreign accented form of English referred to as Ethnic Broad. The children of this migrant group moved away from the Broad forms of Australian English possibly as a way of distancing themselves from this Ethnic broad accent type and embracing a more mainstream Australian identity. An opposite effect has recently occurred with the children of many newer migrant parents embracing their ethnocultural heritage and using a form of Australian English that does express their ethnic cultural identity. It will be interesting to explore the effect this will have on mainstream Australian English.